More than two years after the near-meltdown of the global financial system, “the economy” remains the story of our day.
Yes, with the United States involved in wars in Afghanistan and Libya, and continued enmeshment in Iraq, traditional foreign affairs matter greatly. And yes, with the presidential elections season starting its slow-burn, politics have a central seat at the table.
But unemployment remains stubbornly high; credit markets are scared and skittish and ready for more turmoil in Europe; and tens of millions face an unclear future in an uncertain economy. In other words, the material prosperity of the United States and the world is what matters most to most of us. [time-link title="(What Would Henry Luce Make of the Digital Age?)" url=http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1978794,00.html]
So it’s fitting that Time is dedicating more bandwidth to the issue of who we are economically, and even more so given that it was Time and its driving force, Henry Luce, that placed economic questions at the forefront 70 years ago. Then it was World War II and its aftermath, with Americans emerging from the Great Depression and global conflict to confront a world of affluence and uncertainty. It was Luce who saw that in that new world, during what he dubbed “the American Century,” economic questions were at the heart of the American future.
Luce understood that even juxtaposed to the ideological conflicts of the Cold War – not to mention the nuclear, military and political dimensions of the era – pocketbook issues and the burgeoning appetites, needs and desires of the newly minted “American consumer” would be what mattered to most people most of the time. So he brought in celebrity economists like John Kenneth Galbraith to adorn the pages of both Time and Fortune and do weekly features and substantial studies such as “The Changing American Market,” “The Fabulous Future,” and “Markets of the Sixties.” These articles ran thousands of words long, and were then published as separate books read by hundreds of thousands.
Today, America is yet again at a crossroads, but now the headlines aren’t about affluence per se but rather its possible limits. The challenge isn’t how to unlock the potential of American consumers but how to satisfy our collective needs and desires in the context of more modest growth and a burgeoning global economy epitomized by an emerging China. The challenge is a cultural and economic one–and until there is some collective consensus about how we move forward, we will not move at all.
These issues aren’t going away. Unemployment isn’t magically coming down in the next few years, though there could be modest improvement. The U.S. economy isn’t about to rebound like a slingshot, though there is growth and many are thriving even as many are falling behind. The global system is evolving rapidly from Rio to Mumbai to Shanghai, changing the role of the United States in the process–and not necessarily for the worse. All of these currents are cascading against American shores, and will continue to. [time-link title="(Read Managing Editor Rick Stengel's column about Luce's famous "The American Century" essay)"]
So even as there is a wealth of information and commentary on all matters economic, there is need and room for more. No one would have doubted the need for informed commentary and debate about the Vietnam War or the struggles between communism and capitalism in the 1970s, and the need for better information and analysis on all matters financial, economic and pocketbook is just as vital to our national security today as those were then.
The medium today is increasingly a fusion of print and web, and gone are the times when these issues could be hashed out in tens of thousands of words appearing every few weeks or months. Every day we are bombarded with statistics which we then pore over and analyze for clues about “how are we doing?” Those data points are important, but they are also noise. So our goal (and mine in particular) is to cut through the noise and offer some sense of what matters, what doesn’t, and what should.
There are more questions here than easy answers, but one thing is clear: This is the greatest period of global wealth-creation that the world has ever known. And for many years to come, the United States will remain the single largest and most affluent market, along with Europe. How the affluent world engages the emerging world and how the emerging world engages the United States matters to pocketbooks in the American heartland more than ever. We are no longer simply “an economy.” We are many economies, and each has its own rhythm. Connecting those dots and synthesizing those chords is vital. This is the beginning of a long conversation.